Monday, January 08, 2007

Risk and the War Racket

Companies who made huge sums of money from war by supplying guns and ammunition, often at premium prices, are called “war profiteers.” Few if any of the owners of these firms were even remotely endangered by the products they sold. Such possibilities were the lot of the conscripts that made up the field armies and the mercenaries who sold their talents for killing to the highest bidder.

While the war profiteers and the mercenaries are still to be found, conscripts in most armies in the developed world have been replaced by the “volunteer,” one whose motives for joining the military and risking death can be highly personal and unfathomable even to friends and family. Indeed, even repeated depth psychology sessions might never really reveal why individuals deliberately place themselves in potentially lethal environments when there is at hand a realistic, honorable, and as compelling an alternative not to risk death.

Such musings were prompted by an opinion piece by Werther, the nom de plume of a friend of a friend, published on January 8. Werther started with a famous 1935 quotation by that improbably named U.S. military officer, General Smedley Butler: “War is a racket…in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

The day before, one story making the rounds of the media talked about an effort to build a new “hybrid” tactical nuclear weapon that would act as a “deep penetrating” bunker-busting munition capable of destroying tunnels and hardened bunkers and other targets buried under tens of feet of earth, stone, and concrete. One primary driver of the hybrid “solution” to the redesign may be, as press reports described developments, that technical experts at the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories were unable to agree that one design was unequivocally superior.

One suspects, however, that another factor – and very likely the real reason – for going with a “hybrid” was to spread the contracts for research, design, development and manufacture of the new design as widely as possible. This is a well-known tactic by military manufacturers that pre-dates the Mexican-American War and the gradual decline of the old government arsenal system. The objective was to insulate new weapons programs from the budget ax by getting defense contracts – and therefore jobs and payrolls – into an overwhelming number of states and districts.

Jobs and payrolls translated into votes at election time, and besides, so the logic would go, somebody had to produce what was needed for “national defense.” Of course, the other “shoe” in this arrangement was the ubiquitous presence of industry lobbyists hawking whose mission in life was to ensure that the people’s representatives did not give any industry competitor an undue advantage. (Today theses are commonly referred to as “earmarks,” but it is also possible to draw up the parameters of an item, its performance standards, or other technical or timeline considerations in such a way that, even when put to competitive bidding, only one company – the lobbyist’s – can meet all the requirements.

As distasteful and potentially corrupting as this system is for equipment – not to mention lethal when, given the long acquisition lead time required to go from concept to full operational fielding, the Pentagon fails to anticipate correctly the nature of the future battlefield – it is morally repugnant when it trickles into the “personnel acquisition” system. Since the advent of the all-volunteer force in 1973, military recruiting and retention has slowly but steadily evolved into a lethal crap shoot or a three dimensional chess game where the wrong move (enlisting or reenlisting) at the wrong time (big bonuses, lowering standards to expand the force) is the last one – except for the trip home in a coffin.

What is most troubling about this “arrangement” is that all the risk falls on the individuals. Those who are ultimately responsible for the system – who ask for and who vote for the tax breaks in-theater – most often run no risk themselves, nor do many have sons and daughters or grandchildren who are at risk. Is there a need to expand the force size because the civilian leadership miscalculated how the latest “splendid little war” would play out? The answer is to throw more monetary inducements at young people to fight wars than to fight the root causes of war.

The increases in the number of recruiters and the ever-larger budgets for military recruiting are not drawing in enough new recruits to fill all the components that make up the U.S. military.

The four active duty components all met their recruiting goals in fiscal year 2006, but only the Marine Corps Reserve and the Air Force Reserve achieved their goals for the year. The Army National Guard, Army Reserve, Air National Guard, and the Navy Reserve all missed, the latter falling way short at only 87 percent. For the first two months of fiscal year 2007, recruits for the Army Reserve numbered 79 percent of the goal and for the Navy Reserve only 91 percent.

For fiscal 2006, the Pentagon spent more than $4 billion on recruiting, including $1.8 billion on advertising, maintenance of recruiting stations, but not the pay and allowances of 22,000 military recruiters. (In terms of the “new” U.S. Army combat brigades in Iraq, those 22,000 recruiters would fill more than 6 brigades of 3,500 troops.) The enlistment bonuses for just the active duty army recruits – of which there were 80,835 in 2006 – cost the Pentagon $166 million.

Nor did the Army achieve its own qualitative standards in 2006. It wants 60 per cent of new recruits to score at least in the 50th percentile of the Armed Forces Qualification Test and to have a regular high school diploma. In 2004, 61 percent met these criteria for “high quality”; in 2006, only 47 percent made the grade. In fact, in just two years, the percentage of recruits accepted without both of these quality indicators rose from 13 to 26 percent.

The crucial question, one that is really hard to answer, is how well do these recruits really understand what they are risking. They are not dumb; but risk assessment is itself a risk, often colored by youth’s instinctive sense that they are invincible.

A civilian employee at the Pentagon remarked recently that there are a large number of luxury, sport, and sport-utility vehicles being driven around military posts these days by junior enlisted men and women. Obviously, this is where some of the bonus and tax-free money is being spent. One wonders whether the new owners will be able to still make the payments in another 12 months – or whether they will be back in Iraq or Afghanistan before the final payment comes due.

So far, just from Iraq, more than 3,000 will never know. How many more will there have to be as a result of this Wednesday’s “new strategy”?

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